Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXX, 14

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XXX, 13 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXX, 15


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXX, chapter 14
My nephew, Christian de Chateaubriand



A few days after my arrival in Rome, while I was wandering aimlessly in this way, I encountered a group of schoolboys between the Baths of Titus and the Coliseum. A master in a slouch hat, and torn and trailing gown, who looked like a poor member of the Brothers of the ChristianSchools, was leading them. Passing by, I looked at him, and thought he looked vaguely like my nephew Christian de Chateaubriand, but I dared not believe my eyes. He, in turn, looked at me, and without showing the least surprise said: ‘Uncle!’ I rushed towards him, deeply moved, and clasped him in my arms. With a wave of his hand he halted his silent and obedient flock behind him. Christian was at once pale and brown, sapped by fever and burnt by the sun. He told me he was Prefect of Studies at the JesuitCollege, which was then on holiday at Tivoli. He had almost forgotten his native tongue, and expressed himself with difficulty in French, since he spoke and taught only in Italian. I gazed, eyes full of tears, at my brother’s son turned foreigner, a schoolmaster in Rome, dressed in a dusty black surcoat, and covering that noble brow the helmet so became with a cenobite’s hat.

I had seen Christian’s birth; a few days before emigrating I attended his baptism. His father, his grandfather, President de Rosanbo, and his great-grandfather, Monsieur de Malesherbes were present. The latter stood sponsor to him and grave him his own name, Christian. The church of Saint-Laurent was empty and already half-destroyed. The nurse and I took the child from the priest’s hands.

‘Io piangendo ti presi, et in breve cesta
Fuor ti portai.
Weeping, I took you, and in a little basket
Carried you away.’ (Tasso)

The newborn child was taken back to its mother, and laid on her bed where she and its grandmother, Madame de Rosanbo, greeted it with tears of joy. Two years later, the father, grandfather, great-grandfather, mother and grandmother had perished on the scaffold, and I, witness to the baptism, was wandering in exile. Such were the recollections that my nephew’s sudden appearance brought to mind anew amongst the ruins of Rome. Christian has already spent half his life as an orphan; he has dedicated the remaining half to the altar: the ever-welcoming threshold of the common Father of mankind.

Christian had an ardent and jealous affection for his worthy brother, Louis; after Louis married, Christian left for Italy; there he met the Duc de Rohan-Chabot and encountered Madame Récamier; like his uncle, he has returned to live in Rome, he in a cloister, I in a palace. He entered the religious life to restore a fortune to his brother which he did not consider himself entitled to under the new laws: so Malesherbes and Combourg now both belong to Louis.

After our unexpected meeting at the foot of the Coliseum, Christian came to see me at the Embassy, accompanied by a Jesuit brother; his bearing was sad and his expression serious; in the old days he was always laughing. I asked him if he was happy; he replied: ‘I suffered for a long time; now the sacrifice is made and I am content.’

Christian has inherited the iron character of my father, Monsieur de Chateaubriand, who was his paternal grandfather, and the moral qualities of his maternal great-grandfather, Monsieur de Malesherbes. His feelings are reticent, though he displays them, without regard to the prejudices of the mob, where his duties are concerned: a guard in the Dragoons, descending from his horse he would go straight to Communion; no one laughed at him, since his bravery and kindness were the admiration of his comrades. After he left the service, it was found that he had secretly helped a considerable number of soldiers and officers; he still supports some pensioners in the garrets of Paris, and Louis discharges these, his brother’s, debts. One day, in France, I asked Christian if he would marry: ‘If I married,’ he replied, ‘I would wed one of my little cousins, the poorest of them all.’

Christian spends his nights in prayer; he practices mortifications which worry his superiors: a sore that appeared on one of his legs was the result of his insistence on kneeling for hours on end; never did innocence repent so fervently.

Christian is not a man of this century: he reminds me of those dukes and counts of Charlemagne’s court who, after fighting the Saracens, founded monasteries in lonely places, such as Gellone or Malavalle, and became monks there. I regard him as a saint and would willingly invoke his name. I am convinced that his good works, added to those of my mother and my sister Julie, will obtain grace for me before the sovereign Judge. I have a leaning towards the cloister too; but if my hour were to come, I would ask for a lonely cell by the Portioncula, under the protection of my patron saint, called Francis because he spoke French.

I will trail about in my sandals alone; not for anything in the world would I tolerate a companion in my retreat.

‘In his youth,’ says Dante, ‘he rushed to oppose his father, for such a Lady, to whom, like Death, no one opens the gate of his pleasure… She, deprived of her first husband for eleven hundred years and more, was obscure, despised…She mounted the Cross with Christ…But lest I proceed too darkly, accept, in plain speech, that FRANCIS AND POVERTY were these two lovers; Francesco e Povertà.’ (Paradiso, Canto XI.)